What does 'bioinformatics' mean?
'Bioinformatics' is the application of computer technology to the management and analysis of biological data. The result is that computers are being used to gather, store, analyse and merge biological data.
Bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary research area that is the interface between the biological and computational sciences. The ultimate goal of bioinformatics is to uncover the wealth of biological information hidden in the mass of data and obtain a clearer insight into the fundamental biology of organisms. This new knowledge could have profound impacts on fields as varied as human health, agriculture, the environment, energy and biotechnology.
About this project
Museum Victoria has a wonderful time capsule of millions of animal specimens representing over 150 years worth of our State's biological diversity. Think of each specimen as representing two pages of a book. One page has a picture of the specimen. The second page is full of text about where and when it was collected and by whom, its diet and reproduction, who named the animal and what does the scientific name mean and so on. The Bioinformatics website is a Museum Victoria project that provides public access to 'the pages of that book' for some of Victoria's vertebrate and invertebrate biodiversity.
The core of the web site is an enriched dataset that combines 236,085 faunal specimen records from the Museum's collections, the Victorian Government Wildlife Atlas, Parks Victoria and several private collections. Across time (the last 150 years to now) and space (from anywhere in Victoria to your suburb or district), the web site delivers a creative swirl of knowledge ranging from informed entertainment to serious science. The user can query about the name of an animal, find out when and where it occurs, what it eats, how it breeds and whether it is dangerous. It is also possible to find out about the ecological, conservation and protection status of Victoria's biodiversity. All of this information is interwoven with rich imagery and sounds. Except for birds and fish, the present web site covers all species of Victorian vertebrates: Mammals - 139 species with 162,467 records; Lizards - 87 species with 16,819 records; Frogs - 34 species with 23,328 records; Snakes - 27 species with 2,332 records; together with Victorian butterflies - 143 species with 31,139 records.
Who can use this web site? Anybody! The web site has been specifically designed for use by schools, local councils, conservation groups and importantly, the general public. Usually scientists have the tools to manage and interpret large and raw datasets, so they are considered to be the secondary audience for this web site. However you do not need to be a scientist to interact with and make sense of this valuable resource. Common as well as scientific names are available for every animal and the raw data is filtered and presented as a series of maps or checklists of species with images or sounds, or single pieces of information (say the diet of a mammal).
The concept for the web site has always been to deliver just the information relevant to the question. This is achieved by tailoring, filtering and matching the answers with each specific question. That is different from offering a very general or very inclusive fact sheet in which it is presumed that the user may find the information to answer their question.
For this reason, we have not wasted time creating tens of thousands of static web pages that will go out of date as new information is received. Each time a web query is made, relevant information is gathered directly from the live database, then filtered in some way (map, table, checklist, piece of text, sound file, etc) and the answer web page is generated dynamically at the time of each query. This is what makes Bioinformatics unique. To the user, it means that we never present old or out of date information. And, as we are continually updating the live database, our web pages become more specific to the question and more informative to the user.
How can you use it? Well let's try a few questions. Why not go to your PC and try them live?
As well as the public interface, the web site can be used to answer quite specific scientific and medical questions. A recent example concerned a young boy in the LaTrobe Valley who was bitten by a snake. The venom sample tested positive for the Death Adder snake but this snake does not occur in Victoria. It also tested positive for the Bardick but the distribution map generated by the web site showed that this species occurs in the Big and Little Deserts of western Victoria. So they went back to square one by finding out what snakes are known to occur in the Latrobe Valley (ie. Go to Snakes then under "Map Searches - Across Victoria - List", click the Moe (8121) and Traralgon (8221) squares). The web site produced a list of 6 species of snakes with images of each. The parents were then able to help identify the snake and the venom test information was updated. (By the way, the boy survived!)
Bioinformatics is like having a "Message in a Bottle". Unstopper the cork of the bottle to reveal the secrets inside. Simply open up a web browser and enjoy the mammals, frogs, snakes, lizards and butterflies of Victoria.